When economics prevails over genocide

Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf is pictured during the ruling at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands on January 23, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS/EVA PLEVIER

By Tasneem Tayeb
Jan 27 2020 (IPS-Partners)

(The Daily Star) – Two days after the Interna-tional Court of Justice (ICJ) approved emergency “provisional measures” asking Myanmar to stop persecution of the Rohingya in all forms— including killing, raping, and destroying homes and villages—two Rohingya women died in Rakhine State when the Myanmar army shelled a village. One of them was pregnant.

While many celebrated the ICJ’s order of provisional measures, some—especially those who have witnessed the ineffectiveness of the ICJ’s repeated “provisional measures” to protect Bosnian Muslims in 1993—had been cynical about the ultimate outcome of such a measure. Their scepticism is yet to be proven wrong.

Despite the ICJ’s order, Myanmar—it seems—remains defiant with its genocidal intent against the Rohingya. And Myanmar has good reason for its intransigence.

First of all, while the ICJ’s order is binding, it is not enforceable; and in the face of Myanmar’s non-compliance, The Gambia (the country that brought the case against Myanmar at the ICJ) at best can approach the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for it to decide whether it will use its powers to force Myanmar to comply with the ICJ’s order. And here lies the advantage of Myanmar.

China and Russia—two of Myanmar’s major allies—are two of the five permanent members of the UNSC, which also includes the United States, France and the United Kingdom. Both these countries have in the past resisted the United Nations’ attempts to address the Rohingya issue. To refresh the memory: in March 2017, China and Russia blocked a UN Security Council statement that would have “noted with concern renewed fighting in some parts of the country and stressed the importance of humanitarian access to all effected areas”, as reported by news agency Reuters.

With deep economic and military ties with China and Russia, it is no wonder that Myanmar is safe and strong in the knowledge that the UNSC will not be able to induce it to comply with the ICJ’s verdict in the months and years to come.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month and the signing of 33 memorandums of understanding (MOUs), agreements, exchange letters and protocols send a strong signal to Bangladesh and to the wider world about its strategic ties with the country. According to Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration data, in 2019 China was the second biggest foreign investor in Myanmar, accounting for 25.21 percent of investment in the country; Singapore was the biggest, making up 26.86 percent of the foreign direct investment Myanmar received in the same year.

On the occasion of Xi’s visit, a joint statement in Chinese state media said that China “firmly supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity in the international arena” and hopes for it to advance “peace, stability and development in Rakhine State.” Even if one does not read too much into these two lines, it would be difficult to misread China’s stance on the Rohingya issue.

During the visit, China and Myanmar also signed an agreement for the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) deep seaport project, a major town in the volatile Rakhine State that is at the centre of the Rohingya genocide.

China is not the only actor investing in Rakhine. The World Bank in 2019 came under heavy fire from international human rights bodies and non-government organisations (NGO) for its proposed USD 100 million development project in the conflict-riven Rakhine State titled, “Rakhine Recovery and Development Support Project”.

In a letter to the World Bank dated April 9, 2019, obtained by Reuters, more than a dozen Myanmar-based NGOs said, “It is difficult to imagine how meaningful recovery and development are possible in Rakhine without addressing the underlying human rights issues that currently impact every aspect of life for communities.” Despite World Bank’s assurance that, “The project is being carefully prepared so that it does not reinforce or perpetuate movement restrictions or other forms of segregation, and that it creates new openings for social cohesion and positive exchanges between communities,” how it is going to make sure of this remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military ties with Russia have only strengthened over the years. In January 2018, Russia agreed to sell six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to Myanmar costing at least USD 204 million. The deal was announced during the official visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu to Myanmar in January 2018.

As late as August 2019, Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing paid a visit to Russia and during his stay, he visited the Irkutsk Aviation Plant Corporation that is assembling the six Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role advanced fighter jets for Myanmar. Photos of him sitting in a cockpit next to a test pilot made quite a show of his trip to the plant.

Of course, warplanes are not enough; military personnel require training as well. Here too Russia comes to their aid –more than 600 members of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) were studying at higher military educational institutions in Russia in January 2018, as suggested by Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Lieutenant-General Alexander Fomin.

Apart from these economic transactions, around 60 foreign companies from around the world have ties with businesses controlled by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and the Myanmar Economic Corporation—two military-governed businesses in Myanmar. It is these two conglomerates that dominate the economic and commercial landscape of the country. To address this, the UN fact-finding mission in 2019 urged imposing targeted financial sanctions on companies linked with Myanmar’s military and suggested that foreign companies doing business with Tatmadaw-controlled corporations could be complicit in international crimes.

During the Rakhine State Investment Fair in 2019, Suu Kyi said, “Myanmar has opened up its economy to the world. We have been constantly adjusting our policies, rules and regulations to be in line with international best practices and to make the investment climate more favourable, predictable, facilitative and friendly. We want to establish a welcoming economic environment for all.” Unfortunately, it seems the welcoming environment is not inclusive of the Rohingya.

Given the scenario, it is not surprising that the world, including international bodies like the UN, has miserably failed to address, let alone stop, the genocide unleashed by Myanmar against the helpless Rohingya. Thousands of adults and children have been killed; millions forced to flee; and an unaccountable number of women and girls have been systemically sexually violated, impregnated and exposed to various sexually transmitted diseases by the Myanmar military. And the world watched the spectre unfold before their very eyes like an audience at a macabre movie screening.

While the world is busy exploring potential economic tie-ups with Myanmar, thanks to its vast untapped resources and strategic geopolitical importance, it is the Rohingya and Bangladesh that are bearing the brunt of Myanmar’s economic possibilities. While the ICJ’s verdict is a welcome move, without political will to hold Myanmar to account it will not yield any positive outcome for the Rohingya. Expecting much from it would be a folly. The 1995 Srebrenica massacre should serve as a reality check.

Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.

Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

US-Iran Confrontation & Implications for India

By Simi Mehta
NEW DELHI, Jan 27 2020 – The unease in the relations between the US and Iran have been in the international news for around a month now. Both sides have not shied away from using outright methods of warfare like the use of ballistic missiles and assassinations, along with attempts at economic and diplomatic sanctions.

There have been voices that have mentioned a possibility of a full-blown war in the Middle-East accentuated by US-Iran tensions. Given this background, this article attempts to connect the dots of the prevailing wariness with the historical antagonism between the two countries. It also reflects on the possible implications this might have on India.

It all began in August 1953, when by the covert actions of the Secret Information Service (SIS) of the United Kingdom (UK) and the Central Investigation Agency (CIA) of the United States (US) connived a military coup- Operation Ajax, to topple the then Iran’s elected Prime Minister (PM) Mohammed Mossadegh, an ardent nationalist- who had plans to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and turn oil profits into investments for the Iranian people. The reasons for this coup d’état was that the US feared disruption in the global oil supply and worried about Iran joining the Soviet sphere of influence and the UK feared the loss of cheap Iranian oil.

In January 1963, the last Shah of Iran-Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi- who had close ties with the West, introduced the ‘White Revolution’ and was the harbinger of a series of reforms- for example: allowing women to vote, urban and rural modernization, reduction of religious estates in the name of land redistribution and free and compulsory education among others.

Iran’s Islamic fundamentalists, Shi’ite clergy and the landlords led by Ayatollah Khomeini, were enraged with Shah’s initiatives based on liberal ideals of western thought. They were successful in toppling the latter’s rule in 1979 after years of protests and bloodshed. This came to be known as the Iranian Revolution.

The Iranian revolutionaries took to hostage 52 staff of the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days, following which the US severed all diplomatic relations with Iran, banned American exports to the country and expelled Iranian diplomats. Iran was added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism after an attack by the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah in Beirut in 1983 that killed 241 US Marines in Beirut.

On July 3, 1988, the American cruiser USS Vincennes fired a surface-to-air missile and shot down an Iran Air Flight 655- a passenger flight scheduled from Tehran to Dubai, over the Persian Gulf and killed all 290 aboard. The cruiser commander displayed an ‘error in identification’ and termed the commercial aircraft as a fighter aircraft.

The 9/11 attacks on the US soil led the then George W. Bush administration to designate Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” for supporting terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction. This was fueled by a 2002 controversy that erupted over Iran’s clandestine nuclear program, when the National Council of Resistance on Iran (NCRI), an Iranian exile group, revealed information that Iran had built nuclear-related facilities at Natanz and Arak that it had not revealed to the IAEA. The US government then began pushing for UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

Obama’s election as the US President saw a rise of optimism from the Ahmadinejad’s government for developing understanding with the US. This continued with the election of Hassan Rouhani as the Iranian President in 2013.

Obama-Rouhani administrations witnessed attempts at rapprochements between the US and Iran. The historic Iran nuclear deal between P5+1 (US, China, France, Russia and UK + Germany) and Iran was signed and was known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which freed over 100 billion dollars in frozen assets overseas for Iran and increased foreign access to the Iranian economy.

It severely limited Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium and mandated that international inspectors monitor and enforce Iran’s compliance with the agreement. In return, Iran was granted relief from international and US economic sanctions.

Trump and Escalation of Tensions with Iran

Though the inspectors regularly certified that Iran was abiding by the agreement’s terms, in May 2018 President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and by November all the sanctions against Iran were reinstated. Iran’s economy began to be strangled to pressure it from stopping the ballistic missiles program and to force it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Incidentally, this move by the US was regretted by the EU, UK, France, China and Germany. Iran rejected US’ unilateral decision and vowed to defy the sanctions against it. Trump continued with his sanctions-strategy and imposed them on Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and other top officials of Iran including Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) of Iran. IGRC was designated as a terrorist organization.

Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah attacked an air base in Iraq on December 27, 2019 where American and Iraqi forces were stationed. It killed a US civilian contractor and wounded several US and Iraqi service members. Airstrikes against the Kataib Hezbollah fighters in Iraq and Syria were ordered within two days.

Revenge and retaliation did not stop as the Iranian-backed militia groups chanting ‘death to America’ stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019, and burnt and defaced property.

On January 3, 2020, Iran received a massive jolt of the new decade when on the orders of President Trump, an American drone fired a missile that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, as he prepared to leave the Baghdad airport. Soleimani was considered to be second most powerful man in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The situation became further heated up when Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing American military personnel. While no casualties were reported, Trump announced new harsher economic sanctions on Tehran1 .

As Iran entered a heightened state of alert, preparing for a possible US retaliation, out of “human error”, it accidentally shot down a commercial Ukrainian airliner departing Tehran for Kyiv, killing all 176 people aboard. With the Iranian forces demonstrating “highest level of readiness” at the time, the aircraft was mistaken for a “hostile target”.

Implications for India

India has a veteran diplomat S. Jaishankar as its Minister of External Affairs, and hence the position taken by India amid the US-Iran tussle is likely to avoid taking sides, either of the US or of Iran, in favour or against, since, it shares exceptionally good relations with both. India would continue to expand its economic and cultural ties with Iran and its Global Strategic Partnership with the US.

The US has understood the significance of Iran-India relations, imminent from the waivers provided to India in the recently legislated Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), allowing it to continue importing Iranian oil. Further, Iran’s strategic location provides the route through which India, blockaded by Pakistan, can fulfill its Eurasian ambitions.

The balanced, mature and status-quoist approach of India towards Iran was echoed by the Iranian Deputy Minister for Culture and Guidance of Iran Mohsin Jawadi, when he remarked that India-Iran relations were independent of the ongoing crisis Iran was facing back home. Javad Zarif acknowledged India as a dear friend, which also has good relations with the US. He exhorted the Indian leadership to encourage the US to come back to the negotiating table on the nuclear deal. The Chabahar project provides a route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Because India and Iran are ‘complementary economies’, Iran has highlighted the need to ‘remove the dollar’ from their bilateral trade and instead concentrate on a ‘rupee-rial’ mechanism, which could ease the difficulties faced by them in bilateral trade due to financial sanctions posed on Iran by the US.

Jaishankar seems to have handled the US-Iran standoff over the last one year quite professionally, and accorded Prime Minister Narendra Modi the diplomatic agility to make calculated and successful visits to oil-rich kingdoms of United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Iran has been responsive in negotiating with these countries without any preconditions, and that it ‘would welcome India’s positive role’.


The US has been seeking to contain Iran’s nuclear program, had in the first place, itself helped create in 1957 under the Atoms for Peace Program. It provided Iran its first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel, and after 1967 by providing Iran with weapons grade enriched uranium and continued it until the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The downing of the Ukrainian airliner has an eerie similarity with the downing of the Iran Air in 1988 by the US. The reasons cited for both incidents were ‘human error’, and ‘miscalculation’. The fact that Iran used the 1988 incident as an instance for a revenge cannot be overruled.

Further, the US may advise Ukraine to file a case for compensation with the ICJ soon, alike the Iranian claims in 1989. While an all-out war between the US and Iran has been averted as of now, the crisis has important consequences for longer-term regional stability.

1 Blake, A. 2020. Transcript of Trump’s Iran speech, annotated, The Washington Post, January 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/08/transcript-trumps-iran-speech/

*Simi Mehta also serves as the CEO and Editorial Director of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi., and can be reached at simi@impriindia.org.